RALEIGH — As a longtime advocate of shortening North Carolina’s ballot and rationalizing the distribution of executive power in state government, I was glad to see some folks reacting to a recent News & Observer series on workers-comp evasion by calling for state agency reorganization.
The N&O series exposed some employers as escaping the requirement to buy workers-comp insurance by reporting most of their workers as independent contractors rather than workers. The firms can thus buy only a bare-bones insurance policy that really covers no one, plus avoid paying the employer share of payroll taxes.
If we’re going to fund Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance with payroll taxes, then obviously they should be collected uniformly. And if we’re going to mandate that employers purchase insurance against the risk of workplace accidents, firms ought not to be able to evade the mandate with fraudulent accounting.
According to the series, one reason why many North Carolina firms have been getting away with such practices is that the various agencies that regulate employers do not communicate effectively with each other. The Department of Labor sticks to workplace safety. The Department of Insurance sticks to regulating insurance policies. The Department of Revenue enforces the tax code. The Industrial Commission adjudicates disputes about workers-comp claims.
These and other agencies do not cooperate or share the information necessary to uncover and police independent-contractor fraud. They don’t even use the same computer systems, making coordination a challenge.
I think that both the N&O editorial board and GOP nominee for governor Pat McCrory have it right: We ought to consider responding to this situation by making the lines of executive accountability more rational. North Carolina should have fewer elected offices on the ballot, and put more of the executive branch under the control of an elected governor.
I have long favored limiting the number of elected state executives to three: governor and lieutenant governor, running as a ticket, plus an independent state auditor. Perhaps you think the state treasurer or attorney general should be independently elected. I’m not persuaded, but at least I see some reasonable arguments for electing them.
What I don’t find reasonable is the notion that North Carolina should continue to elect the insurance commissioner, labor commissioner, secretary of state, and state superintendent of public instruction. The first three are primarily regulators whose work should be coordinated and administered within the governor’s cabinet. The state superintendent ought to be an administrator hired by the state board of education.
While in theory these offices are democratically elected, in practice few voters possess significant information about the candidates running for these offices. Incumbents may win reelection because their names sound vaguely familiar. Challengers may win because their political party experiences a wave election. You’ll pardon me if I deem these scenarios as falling a bit short of the republican ideal.
With a governor’s race, at least, voters have a realistic chance of learning about the candidates. The campaigns receive significant media coverage and can raise enough money to sustain substantial advertising budgets. I would argue that giving governors more authority over regulatory and education agencies would make those agencies more accountable to the voting public, not less so, by linking them to gubernatorial candidates about whom voters actually know something – and care to know something.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and author of Our Best Foot Forward: An Investment Plan for North Carolina’s Economic Recovery.